Cooking is a job. It is a way to take rough and raw ingredients, turn them into something palatable and, with a little experience and knowledge, perhaps make people happy with the bits and pieces on the plate. And that is all. Political opinion matters for nothing. Chefs that get all high and mighty by sharing their thoughts about, say, the fair treatment of wage-earners in Uganda are not lending any voice to the down-trodden and, more than likely, are laughable for their attempt. Stick to cooking. Desire to do something of measurable impact to save the environment will not start over the range or in the oven. Shifting the path of the homeless, the destitute and desperate, is not part of any recipe. Customers buy food that gets made with the toil of beef-blood stained hands, the hands nicked from days and days of knife work, pock marked and calloused burns. The sun comes up, the metal door slams shut and the computer acknowledges the start of another day. And another day. And another day. The bills get nearly paid and the day starts again. At some point, the “there must be more” Matrix-like epiphany is gleaned from the day to day drone. There has to be more. Not just the inner smile from passing a stranger on a sidewalk and exchanging a pleasant Good morning, but honest to goodness more.
At 20, everything is known about cooking, poised for domination of the best dining experience. Surely, running some big-ass operation with all the acclaim is just around the bend. Wait, wait. At 25 everything is known. Forget being 20 and thinking that the world was waiting to be changed, now is the time for world domination of all things food. Just kidding. At 30, the galaxy’s compendium of all things culinary are absorbed. No, no. 35. Wait, now 40. But the legs are getting achy earlier each day. And the late nights are for reading and icing swollen joints rather than chilling shots of Fireball. It’s figuring taxes and calculating insurance payments rather than a late-night drive to Geno’s Cheesesteaks at 3am. Which comes back to, What does cooking mean other than feeding an appetite? There is a legacy to be had, there is something more. If it gets invented. That invention happens in the kitchen lab, if it happens at all. There has to be something more; there has to be something that leaves the footprint on the moon; there has to be something for laboring, for true cooking, for stinking like rotted oil laced with fish scales and beat-ass pasta, drizzled with vile and a gallon of self preservation.
Get busy living or get busy dying. Accept the mediocrity of people that don’t really care about what they do or leave. Work ethic belongs to the worker. Or it doesn’t. It is the source of immeasurable frustration to tweak out the precision of knife work, make every effort to balance the flavor, ruminate over every ingredient, every element of a dish, labor over all pieces that are supposed to come together for a great experience that should strike the customer as remarkable. But it stops when it leaves the grip of the designer and is left for the barbarians that deliver it or their savage leader that feeds on money’s life-blood. It ends there. Work ethic. Labor Details. Excellence. It hits the ceiling then either A.) Gets carried through to really make that memorable experience happen or B.) Is cast to sea, floating with barely an effort in hopes that the 20% Goddess circles back with a puff of warm air and folded bills. The hooligans in the kitchen can have all the pride in the Culinary Cosmos, but it does nothing more than impale itself upon a spiteful spear that bleeds a well-reduced pomegranate sauce, if the care stops at the dining room door.
Making the mark that will carry on comes from a singular effort. It is not about critical acclaim, a name in the paper, a mention on a trendy dot-com or a plaque that hangs by the hostess station. And the mark isn’t upon anybody else, to be clear. Rather, it is the fulfillment that working like a… well, like a cook, will pay off. Not in money! The payment is the warm, fuzzy feeling from being part of something bigger than dinner service. It is bigger than being part of the laughter-loving miscreants that celebrate successful busy weeks with waaaaay too many libations into the wee hours. Good for laughs and cavorting, that is not the pay-off. It comes from treating an up-and-comer to healthy servings of experience so that they can build their cooking fortitude. It comes from spending time on the weekend (which equates to Tuesday since Saturday and Sundays are verboten!) at a local kitchen where an extra set of hands are needed. It comes from time spent at a farm pulling vegetables to be dropped off at the food bank. If excitement is anticipated, it will never come. The excitement comes from doing something worthwhile for others, based on the skill so finely honed from all the nights in the kitchen. It truly is a labor of love. Love what you do and do it until it loves you back.
The latest series of columns by Jim Berman have found a home on apparel. Stop by http://teespring.com/kitchenhooligan to grab a hoodie. Proceeds benefit the Food Bank. Available until 10.29.